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What Aussies need to know about the JN.1 covid variant

Across the country, health experts are bracing for yet another wave of COVID-19, this time driven by the latest concerning strain of the contagious virus. Here’s what you need to know.

As we embark on another year, the pandemic that never seems to cease has replenished its mighty forces once again, with a new strain of COVID-19 taking centre stage across Australia. 

The JN.1 variant is a direct descendant of Omicron, first appearing in select cases late last year. Evolving from the Pirola variant in 2023 (another offshoot of Omicron), the latest strain has also been recognised for its multiple spike protein mutations. 

Now, as the latest strain shows no signs of slowing down, experts are concerned the JN.1 variant may better evade our immune systems and preventative health measures. 

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An evasive and contagious mutation

As each variant has evolved over the years, so have our individual antibodies and collective herd immunity, strengthening our defence against recurring infection. 

The JN.1 has been found to contain one significant additional spike protein mutation (L455S), making the variant more transmissible and evasive of antibodies, according to Kirby Institute virologist Stuart Turville. 

„[BA.2.86] was dominating in its own way, but it hadn’t quite navigated well past the next hurdle, which is actually navigating around antibodies,“ he says, explaining that the JN.1 mutation impacts the way the virus binds to our healthy cells. 

„With JN.1, we’ve got a situation where it’s gained the competitiveness of evading antibodies like the XBBs or EG.1.“

What impact will JN.1 have on the public?

Researchers from the University of Tokyo published a study in The Lancet early this month after examining the strain’s genomic sequencing data.

“JN.1 is one of the most immune-evading variants to date,” conclude the researchers, speaking to the strain’s impressive affinity for infection compared to previous variants.

Despite only emerging in late 2023, the variant has quickly dominated the case numbers of countries across the world, indicating a similar fate for Australia in the coming months. 

According to data from the GISAID variant tracking platform, the JN.1 variant is now responsible for over half of all cases in the United Kingdom, the United States, select countries in Europe and Singapore.

However, with precise tracking of Covid cases in Australia becoming increasingly more challenging as the pandemic enters its fifth year, experts predict the full impact of JN.1 could be difficult to determine. 

„The only available national collection is not up to date, difficult to use, and often provides no state/territory breakdowns,“ shares University of SA epidemiologist Adrian Esterman. “States and territories report at different times (some monthly, some weekly, some not at all), and provide different statistics.”

But as several states have indicated over the past month, cases indeed are climbing as a result of the new variant, though at the moment appear to be less severe. 

„We’re not seeing people in intensive care, and we’re seeing very low numbers of people that die from this at the moment, which is obviously a good thing,“ says Paul Griffin, a Brisbane-based infectious diseases physician. 

Is the JN.1 variant more dangerous?

Although we have seen a steady increase in hospitalised patients and general cases of the JN.1 strain, the data (though limited at this stage) is yet to indicate the variant is more severe than its predecessors. 

Last year, research presented to the World Health Organization stated a sample of adult patients in Belgium ‘reported no difference in the odds of hospitalisation with JN.1 compared to non-BA.2.86 variants’. 

While JN.1 cases may not pose an increased risk regarding symptom severity, it has been described by experts as an incredibly infectious variant, requiring the public’s diligence and effort to contain the spread of infection.

In terms of protecting yourself against the newest strain, all existing health measures and advice apply. If you’re feeling sick, stay home, and keep up to date with your vaccination boosters. 

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